On Friday October 9, 2009 I awoke in Chicago to the news that President Barrack Obama had been awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. Though he had only been in office nine months, so enamored was the Nobel committee with his diplomatic efforts to reintegrate the U.S. into the international community that they conferred the prize more to refute George W. Bush’s eight years of cowboy swagger than as a salute to any particular Obama achievement.
The story buzzed through the Chicago Hilton that morning as we assembled for the 10:30 a.m. pre-race press conference for Sunday’s 32nd Bank of America Chicago Marathon. Presiding over the presser was friend and British broadcaster Tim Hutchings, who would interview two panels of athletes on stage. To his left sat the women, to his right the men. The panel included 2008 Olympic Marathon champion Sammy Wanjiru of Kenya who would be making his much anticipated American racing debut that Sunday morning in Chicago.
As Tim was interviewing the athletes, I noticed that Wanjiru was sitting slumped in his chair in a posture of utter disinterest, paying no attention whatsoever to what anyone else was saying. Some may have viewed it as relaxed, but I recall thinking at the time, “we’re building the sport around guys like this, and this is how he presents himself? He’s not even trying to mask his feelings.”
Later, after Sammy resurrected his appearance by quipping how he was “glad to see the place Obama is from”, I remarked to his manager, Federico Rosa, about his athlete’s postural attitude.
“Did you see his body language?” I asked. “He was essentially saying, ‘I could give two sh-ts about being here’. He’s the Olympic champion, for heaven sakes. It’s not professional.”
Federico just shrugged.
“Maybe he is tired,” he offered.
That 2009 Chicago memory came to mind as I read Federico’s remarks in the wake of the great champion’s shocking death on Monday at his home in Kenya. Federico had made mention of Sammy’s arrogance as an athlete, which red-flagged, for me, how that same arrogance which served Wanjiru so well in competition, whether in his Olympic victory in Beijing, or in both his Chicago wins in 2009 & 2010, betrayed him in his personal life as surely as the sadness which attends his untimely passing.
Yes, we are all arrogant and invincible at 21. And the loss of a young man as vibrant as Sammy Wanjiru is tragic enough on its face. But notwithstanding that World and Olympic 100 and 200 meter champion Usain Bolt has replaced NBA star LeBron James as the most marketable sportsman on the planet – according to SportsPro in its second annual ranking of the world’s 50 most marketable athletes – the overall well-being of distance running, and track and field in general, is less than robust. News that the Millrose Games is pulling up stakes from New York’s Madison Square Garden after a century attests to that. Now the premature death of a champion who had the potential to resurrect distance running, just as Bolt has lifted sprinting, compounds the loss.
No Rules, Just Wrong
Yet it must be said that the total lack of rules and regulations in this sport, this laissez-faire system that requires nothing more than speed and tolerates indulgent, petulant behavior without consequence or penalty must, in some small measure, be added to the blame for this story’s tragic outcome.
Don’t get me wrong, athletes in every other sport are just as, if not even more, petulant and pampered than runners. They certainly get paid a hell of a lot more. But there are also union by-laws, sponsor requirements, and contractual obligations in place to help protect and ameliorate the damage while bolstering the health and image of the sport. If an athlete wants to act the fool in public while being paid vast sums, that’s fine. But there are penalties for such behavior. Miss a Super Bowl press conference? You get fined. Not so in running.
I remember one year at the Boston Marathon when defending women’s champion Fatuma Roba of Ethiopia didn’t even show up for the press conference where she was to be given her #1 race number! Yet no one ever said to Fatuma Roba, “Show up!” or to Sammy Wanjiru, “Sit up straight! You carry a responsibility. And if you don’t, just so you know, it will cost you one-third your fee. But you make the call.”
There is a hard lesson inherent in our event fragmentation and lack of regulations. For the last 20 years our sport has allowed an unending string of speedy, but unseasoned young men and women to migrate to our events without any semblance of a Roberts Rules of Order to regulate conduct or engage media training. Run fast from point A to point B, we’ve said, that’s all you need to do. Furthermore, the emphasis on times rather than on competition, rivalries or personality has broken the lead pack off from its historic fan base, the throngs running/jogging/walking in its wake. And, of course, we have lost our outside audience altogether.
Now, with the passing of 24 year-old Sammy Wanjiru in a moment of – well, we don’t even know a moment of what, as yet – we have lost a singular, charismatic talent whose eventual maturity might’ve helped resurrect the flagging image of the sport. Unfortunately, that assignment must now be left to another. Though how many talents the likes of Wanjiru come around every generation?
Certainly, in the last analysis we are all masters of our own fate, as the untimely deaths of other young stars like Steve Prefontaine and Len Bias remind us. But the questions still linger. Will the sport of running, itself, have learned anything at all from this tragic loss? Do we owe anything at all to future Sammy Wanjirus?